The flawed Pompey genius it was a privilege to watch

Robert Prosinecki in action against Colchester at Fratton Park in 2005
Robert Prosinecki in action against Colchester at Fratton Park in 2005

At the Vasil Levski National Stadium, the final whistle sounded on Azerbaijan’s qualification campaign.

In truth, their bid to reach the 2016 European Championship was over long before the trip to Bulgaria yielded a 2-0 defeat.

Still, the manager appointed in December 2014 had overseen a creditable three draws and a victory during his on-going tenure.

Among them were eye-catching stalemates against Croatia and Norway, albeit still managing to finish fifth out Group H’s six competitors.

Robert Prosinecki’s reputation as a manager remains intact. For now.

Yet his regard as a deliciously-talented playmaker will never diminish, particularly among the Fratton faithful.

It has been almost 13-and-a-half years since the former Barcelona and Real Madrid midfielder last graced Pompey.

These days social media inhabitants would brandish him lazy, chide his penchant for avoiding tackling, lambast his chain-smoking lifestyle and admonish the perceived lack of passion.

No doubt if he resided on Twitter under a blue tick he would be approached directly and subjected to expletive-laden rants.

But Robert Prosinecki was a gem.

He had his imperfections, yet many consider him the greatest Pompey player they ever saw.

For some, he was the finest Pompey player you never saw.

Everything about Prosinecki looked wrong. This was a professional footballer who failed to fulfil the expected conventionality.

He smoked Marlboros in the dressing room, struggled for fitness, his gait was shambling, and no attempt was made to tend to his appearance.

Yet his footballing ability was sublime.

What’s more, he was so wonderfully enigmatic, adding to the allure among supporters who were treated to 35 appearances and nine goals.

During my first year at The News, I was once instructed to raid petty cash and grab an unsuspecting Prosinecki at the end of that day’s Pompey training.

The grand plan was to take him on a tour of the city and, along with a photographer, act as guide and interviewer on this fantastic voyage.

And so Prosinecki shuffled out of the HMS Collingwood changing rooms sporting a Dennis the Menace-style pullover – and an absence of understanding for the English language to puncture the tour bus’ tyres.

Not to be outdone, we were despatched by our superiors to return, this time cunningly accompanied by a lecturer from the University of Portsmouth skilled in German, the country of Prosinecki’s birth.

On this occasion he paused for a chat having recognised the language dangled in his direction as he passed.

Sadly, though, we remained out of service as the midfielder politely explained he had to go home. Not unreasonably, if truth be told.

We didn’t bother again.

Such was his struggle with the English language, Prosinecki never conducted interviews during his Fratton Park days which ended in May 2002.

Okay, he did once, when chairman Milan Mandaric translated for him.

The News’ only means of effective communication was achieved by calling his wife, Vlatka – on their Fareham landline – who was impressively proficient at English.

On the pitch, however, Prosinecki could be captivating, an enchanting vision with the ball at his feet and delectably unpredictable.

The undoubted highlight was Barnsley – a fixture so wonderfully coined ‘hat-trick for nothing’ by my predecessor Mark Storey, having overheard the great man utter the comment post-match.

On that February 2002 occasion, Graham Rix’s side led 4-2 at Fratton Park with six minutes remaining.

Then Linvoy Primus was dismissed and a 4-4 draw ensued.

It would be the only hat-trick of Prosinecki’s glittering career, yet he refused the match ball out of disgust at the final result and instead stormed out of the dressing room with close friend Mladen Rudonja in tow.

The genius was flawed, unquestionably, yet that was his appeal. And the fans adored him.

Legend has it he would partake in a half-time cigarette while sat in dressing room toilet cubicles.

Barry Harris even recalls how Prosinecki once instructed kitman Kev McCormack to have a lit Marlboro ready in the tunnel at half-time during one Fratton fixture.

I can still picture him leaning against a wall at Hillsborough, sporting a tracksuit and puffing away minutes after Pompey triumphed 3-2 on Yoshi Kawaguchi’s debut.

According to a Pompey team-mate at the time, Rowan Vine, Prosinecki would refuse to wear a suit for pre-match team meetings at the Portsmouth Marriott Hotel.

Instead, he doggedly favoured jeans, T-shirt and a cardigan, while was known to spend such meetings sitting at the bar accompanied by double espressos and Marlboro Reds.

In September 2014, however, I did at last interview the great man.

Having drawn up a wishlist of Fratton favourites to feature in Played Up Pompey, Prosinecki was an improbable goal. He turned out to be the first interviewed.

After locating his agent through Google, two days later I was emailed a phone number.

Prosinecki’s English was passable, although Vlatka was by his side. He sang the Pompey Chimes, he recalled Barnsley, he was charming and amusing over the 31-minute duration.

A few days later I received a text from him after a Blues draw with Wycombe at Fratton Park.

It simply stated: ‘Pompej 1:1’

Flawed – but perfect.